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The parallel encounters offer a snapshot of the West’s yin and yang over China: On one hand, a hardening hawkishness toward Beijing’s one-party regime, rooted in distrust of its ambitions and intentions; on the other, a recognition of the need to engage and maintain partnerships with the rising Asian superpower and economic titan, no matter the political atmosphere.
Macron goes to China on a complicated mission, keen to enlist Xi in the pursuit of checking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while hoping to expand and boost ties on the economic front. Macron is also going in force, joined by both his finance and foreign ministers as well as a delegation of more than 50 business leaders from prominent French companies, including nuclear energy group EDF and aviation juggernaut Airbus. The trip includes stops both in Beijing and the southern metropolis of Guangzhou; Xi is expected to accompany Macron to Guangzhou, giving the two leaders many hours of potential time together for frank discussion.
The French president’s visit to China comes in the wake of recent missions by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who last week urged Xi to reach out to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Macron is expected to make a similar pitch, reinforced all the more by the presence of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who conferred Monday in Paris with Macron, had a call Tuesday with Zelensky and will journey to China alongside the French president.
Top on the agenda is the war in Ukraine. Macron may have failed in his efforts to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from carrying out his invasion last year, but, along with other Western European leaders, he believes Beijing may have the ability to curb Russia’s worst instincts, from deployment of nuclear weapons to its abuses of Ukrainian civilians.
“We won’t fundamentally change their position, but we expect that it could be possible that [the Chinese] don’t lean more toward Moscow,” a French official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media, told me. “It is clear that China is one of the few countries in the world, if not the only country in the world, to be able to have a game-changing effect on the conflict, in either direction.”
Macron last visited China in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world and hastened the emergence of a more hardened, nationalist Beijing under Xi. “The president is coming to say, more than three years after his last trip: ‘Let’s hear where you are, and listen to us on where we are,’” the French official said. “This can have an impact.”
Europe’s stance on China has also shifted, with governments more wary of its intentions than in the past. The war in Ukraine sealed the collapse of Beijing’s so-called 17+1 diplomatic track with Eastern European countries, a mechanism that at one point was seen as a potential wedge within Europe. Last week, von der Leyen delivered a more hawkish speech on the E.U.’s future China policy, emphasizing the need to “de-risk” the continent’s exposure to the Chinese economy.
That presents an inherent tension with the other major component of Macron’s visit, some analysts argue. Von der Leyen “dismissed in her speech the idea that Xi could be counted on to play a constructive role in the Ukraine conflict and pushed for a de-risking of Europe’s economic relationship with China,” observed Noah Barkin of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Paris sees it differently. French officials close to Macron have indicated in recent weeks that he is considering offering Xi a deal along the lines of this: France will resist U.S. pressure to decouple from China if Beijing invests diplomatic capital in bringing about peace in Ukraine.”
Some European officials, especially those more animated by the threat posed by Russia, looked on skeptically at Macron and von der Leyen’s trip. “Preaching de-risking while marching ahead with business-as-usual is not an option,” tweeted Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis. “Surely we have learnt that increasing dependencies on totalitarian states weakens us as we discard the principles that made us strong.”
On a certain level, money talks — and the influence of the mammoth Chinese market shadows all global politics. “With Macron, this business delegation, it’s definitely a signal towards Beijing that economic cooperation is still very high on the agenda in Paris, but also at the level of the E.U. as a whole,” Alicja Bachulska, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Euronews, suggesting that Europe was not on board with U.S.-led plans to isolate China and retrench Western companies away from certain sectors of the Chinese economy. “And this was visible in von der Leyen’s speech — Europe is not about decoupling, this American-style decoupling.”
The French official argued that the gap between U.S. and European positions on China was not as big as it may seem — or as the hawkish rhetoric in Washington, especially in Congress, may suggest. Biden administration officials had hoped to lower the temperatures and establish a more productive dialogue with their Chinese counterparts before the appearance of a Chinese spy balloon over the U.S. mainland inflamed Washington’s already heated conversation on China and compelled Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing.
Few in Washington are placing much stock on Macron being able to move the needle on the conflict in Ukraine through his discussions with Xi. But Europeans, at the same time, recognize that wholly yoking their policies and agendas to the grand strategy of the United States is a non-starter, even at a time when U.S. leadership has been crucial to anchoring a united transatlantic defense of Ukraine. They see the volatile dramas of U.S. politics, remember the disconcerting disruptions posed by former president Donald Trump and lament the prospect of his return.
“If Trump were really history, many in Europe would have fewer sleepless nights,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States and a doyen of the continent’s foreign policy establishment, to the New York Times. “But the fundamental fear Trump provoked six years ago would not disappear.”
“What if the isolationist virus Trump unleashed continued to infect other candidates?” Ischinger added. “What if, instead of Trump, Republicans nominate another isolationist candidate for the presidency? And what if that candidate wins?”
“Macron has been consistent that we need to have a sovereign Europe,” the French official told me. “This is not to say that we would be in the middle between the United States and China. But we know that it is in our interests to be able to protect the interests of our citizens and not to always rely on others.”